Welsh grouse shooting
A brief history. By David S. D. Jones
Commonly found in many upland areas of Wales at the beginning of the 20th century, the red grouse was energetically pursued by wealthy late Victorian and Edwardian sportsmen, with large bags being taken on a number of moors in the years leading up to the outbreak of The Great War in 1914. Since this time, grouse stocks have gradually declined or become extinct in a number of districts, particularly in the central, southern and western regions due to changing farming practices, mass afforestation, loss of moorland and lack of proper moorland management. Indeed, according to one commentator, writing in 1939, grouse were rarely seen anywhere south of Montgomeryshire in Central Wales.
Prior to the mid-Victorian period, red grouse shooting was carried out on a small scale by a few hardy Welsh squires and noblemen and their guests who occasionally ventured out on to the moors, accompanied by pointers or setters, in pursuit of two or three brace of grouse for the table. Things changed, however, with the coming of the railways, when Wales became easily accessible to London and other parts of England, enabling wealthy landowners in the principality to invite their English friends and relatives to shoot grouse in return for the opportunity to shoot driven pheasants in the shires.
Grouse shooting increased in popularity in Wales from the 1860s onwards, after the introduction of the breech-loading shotgun made it possible for large bags to be taken within a relatively short space of time, with the result that major Welsh landowners in upland areas began to improve their moors for the benefit of grouse and grouse shooting. For example, the 1st Lord Penryn not only spent vast sums of money carrying out surface drainage and erecting butts on his 150,000 acre moorland estate, which stretched from Penmachno to Dolwyddelan in Carnarvonshire, but engaged an experienced Scottish head gamekeeper, Mr. Foster, to manage his grouse moors. Foster, recruited primarily for his grouse driving abilities, had previously worked for the Dukes of Buccleuch and Sutherland and the Earl of Home on a variety of moors in his native country.
Some Welsh landowners at this time saw the potential of letting out red grouse shooting to wealthy sportsmen on a weekly, fortnightly or seasonal basis, a practice then considered to be ‘vulgar' by the elite of society. As early as 1868, Abraham Feetham, Britain's first commercial shoot manager, offered grouse shooting for ‘up to four guns' on his property at Hafod in Cardiganshire. A decade of so later, in 1880, the legendary rabbit shot, Richard Lloyd-Price, went a step further, not only letting out shooting on his grouse moors at Rhiwlas near Bala in Merionethshire, where it was said to be possible to kill 1,000 brace in a good season, but also reserving a 3,000 acre grouse moor specifically for netting in order that he could sell live grouse to other estate owners for re-stocking purposes!
By the 1890s, grouse shooting had become well established in many of the upland areas of Wales, with driving taking place on a regular basis on the principal moors in Carnarvonshire, Denbighshire and Merionethshire. Further south in Breconshire, Cardiganshire, Montgomeryshire and Radnorshire, walked-up shooting predominated, while in counties such as Carmarthenshire, Glamorganshire and Monmouthshire, a brace or two of red grouse might form part of the bag taken on a small mixed day.
Interestingly, grouse shooting was also taking place just across the border from Montgomeryshire on the Long Mynd in Shropshire at this time, grouse having been artificially introduced there in the 1840s. Grouse were also being shot in small numbers on the nearby Stiperstones and in the Clun Forest.
The golden age of Welsh grouse shooting was undoubtedly between the 1890s and 1914 when bags taken on some of the more prestigious moors eclipsed those taken on some of the smaller moors in the Highlands of Scotland. For example, on the 7,000 acre Ruabon Moor in Denbighshire, the lessee, Alfred Wynne-Corrie, High Sheriff of Shropshire, raised the annual bag from 787 grouse in 1898 to 6,682 in 1901, killing a grand total of 42,901 grouse between 1898 and 1908. Record daily bags taken at Ruabon between 1898 and 1914 include 781 brace of grouse on August 18, 1904, 887 brace to eight Guns on August 13,1912, and 770 brace on August 15,1913.
However, at the other end of the spectrum, guests of Sir James Williams-Drummond, shooting on Caio Moor on the Edwinsford estate in Carmarthenshire, during the Edwardian period, might only expect to bag three of four brace of grouse on a walked-up day in August!
When war broke out in 1914, shooting activities on the Welsh grouse moors were scaled down for the duration, with little or no keepering taking place in many areas. Grouse stocks subsequently became depleted, being shot for the table in large numbers for country houses and temporary hospitals or poached for food purposes by the less well off.
Following the cessation of hostilities in 1918, many Welsh landowners found it impossible to afford to manage their grouse moors to pre-war standards due to both excessive death duties and the punitive taxation imposed by the Lloyd George Liberal Government. Moors often reverted to a wild state, were put over to agricultural use or were afforested by the newly formed Forestry Commission. Grouse bags declined dramatically in some areas with the result that on small shoots such as Langoed Hall in Breconshire the pre-war average daily bag of six to eight brace became the normal annual bag.
Driven grouse shooting continued to take place on a number of the principal moors in North Wales during the 1920s and 1930s, with reasonable annual bags being taken at Ruabon, Llanarmon, leased by the 2nd Duke of Westminster, and at Pale near Bala, where Sir Winston Churchill was an occasional Gun. Both the Lake House Hotel at Llangammarch Wells in Breconshire and the Lake Vyrnwy Hotel in Montgomeryshire took over moors and started to offer grouse shooting to guests, the former giving a choice of four moors, the latter offering driven or walked-up shooting.
Welsh grouse stocks suffered a further blow in 1939 when the Second World War was declared and gamekeepers went off to fight for their country, leaving the birds with little or no protection. Indeed, Home Guard units responsible for patrolling upland areas such as D Company, 4th.Carmarthen, based in rural Carmarthenshire, where many of the men were farmers exempted from military service, often enjoyed a little grouse shooting to relieve the boredom of a fine August afternoon or evening!
The already depleted Welsh red grouse populations were severely affected by the harsh winter of 1947, when stocks virtually disappeared from some moors. Since this time, grouse have been on a more or less constant decline in the principality due to a combination of factors, including a lack of active moorland management, increasingly stocking moors with sheep and the presence of the tick borne disease, louping ill.
Ending on a more positive note, within the past decade or so, red grouse stocks in some parts of Wales, particularly in the north, have started to show signs of a gradual recovery.
With environmentally responsible moorland management techniques being carried out on a number of moors, and in collaboration with various conservation agencies and the implementation of schemes such as the Welsh Grouse Project - which achieved great things for grouse re-vitalising the 8,000 acre Pale Moor near Bala in the late 1990s - things are looking up. According to some sources within the gamekeeping industry, these measures resulted in above average annual bags being taken on a number of Welsh grouse moors in 2011.